Columbia Book Caper: Part II

Book notes looks at the Daniel Spiegelman defense.

Mike Selby

The United States Justice Department was far from amused. They were awaiting the extradition from the Netherlands of Daniel Spiegelman — the prime suspect in a series of thefts from Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Yet just before the Dutch authorities put Spiegelman on an airplane, a story surfaced that profits from his crimes were used to fund the 1995 Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing. This halted all extradition proceedings. The Netherlands will not extradite a criminal to any country if he or she is facing the death penalty.

But was this story true? The FBI didn’t think so, and they should know. The Oklahoma bombing sparked the largest criminal investigation in American history. There never was any connection found to Spiegelman. It appeared he leaked the story himself, hoping to remain in Europe.

If this was his plan, the whole thing backfired. Claiming to be responsible for this heinous act of terrorism landed him in one the securest prisons in Europe for an entire year, before being escorted back to the U.S. under heavily armed guards.

With his American lawyers, Spiegelman agreed to plead guilty with the hopes that his time served already in Europe would be taken into consideration. He was also counting on a very well-known fact: book theft is rarely punished. “Even when a thief is caught red-handed,” wrote Travis McDade, a legal expert in library theft, “he is treated as less a major criminal than a person who simply has overdue library books.”

Unfortunately for Spiegelman, two obstacles stood in his way during his sentencing hearing. The first was Judge Louis Kaplan, who possessed one of the sharpest legal minds in the States. The second was one Spiegelman and his lawyers were unprepared for.

Spiegelman’s defense strategy essentially came down to the belief that what he had stolen was, in fact, no big deal. While collectors will pay handsomely for rare items, Columbia was not really been hurt by the thefts. Scholars still have access to photocopies and/or any reprints made of important historical work.  To illustrate this, they called attention to an item Spiegelman stole — an original letter written by George Washington. They offered that the letter “is not a work of art, like a Rembrandt. It is merely a letter — a message —and the color of the ink or the thickness of the paper does not add to the message.” The lawyer also questioned the use of the word ‘rare’ itself, a term of library jargon which has no real meaning in the real world.

Somewhat rhetorically, Judge Kaplan wondered if the existence of millions and millions of paintings existing today meant the Mona Lisa no longer mattered.

But the largest blow came from Jean Ashton, the chief librarian of Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Wearing white cotton gloves, Ashton unfurled a scroll, stretching it across the entire courtroom. This was a papal bull, dating from 1262.  Ashton was about to educate the entire courtroom that Spiegelman’s thefts were, indeed, a big deal. Her testimony took the defense team completely off guard.

But then there was a suicide attempt, a prison break, the arrest of Spiegleman’s lawyer, and one more bizarre twist in this story.

(continued next week).

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public LIbnrary